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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Galston: Mandatory Voting Needed

In The New York Times Sunday Review TDS Co-Editor William Galston makes the case for mandatory voting. Noting that 31 nations have some form of mandatory voting, with half of them also providing an enforcement mechanism, Galston highlights the example of Australia, which has some cultural characteristics similar to the U.S. and over 85 years experience with the requirement.:

…Alarmed by a decline in voter turnout to less than 60 percent in 1922, Australia adopted mandatory voting in 1924, backed by small fines (roughly the size of traffic tickets) for nonvoting, rising with repeated acts of nonparticipation. The law established permissible reasons for not voting, like illness and foreign travel, and allows citizens who faced fines for not voting to defend themselves.
The results were remarkable. In the 1925 election, the first held under the new law, turnout soared to 91 percent. In recent elections, it has hovered around 95 percent. The law also changed civic norms. Australians are more likely than before to see voting as an obligation. The negative side effects many feared did not materialize. For example, the percentage of ballots intentionally spoiled or completed randomly as acts of resistance remained on the order of 2 to 3 percent.

Galston fleshes out three basic arguments for mandatory voting in the U.S.: the need for more citizen responsibility, the need for broader participation of demographic groups and that it would reduce polarization. He adds that it would improve our dismally-low turnout rates in non-presidential years and it could lead to a more serious discussion of the issues during campaigns, among other benefits. He concludes with a challenge to the states:

The United States Constitution gives the states enormous power over voting procedures. Mandating voting nationwide would go counter to our traditions (and perhaps our Constitution) and would encounter strong state opposition. Instead, a half-dozen states from parts of the country with different civic traditions should experiment with the practice, and observers — journalists, social scientists, citizens’ groups and elected officials — would monitor the consequences.

An interesting idea. Perhaps one of those states could experiment with a tax credit for voters, in effect a penalty for nonvoters. Galston doesn’t discuss the difficulty of enacting such legislation, with Republicans across the country more interested in ‘reforms’ to suppress voting. More likely, states where Dems hold the governorship and majorities in the state legislature will be the first to experiment with it.

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